Wonder Woman rises to the challenge.
Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) may be a crime-fighter by night, but her days are spent working in Paris’ most famous museum, the Louvre. It’s there where she receives a package from her friend Bruce Wayne containing the original glass plate photograph showing her and four friends during World War I. The image sends her into her memories to a childhood spent on the Amazon island of Themyscira and her entry into the real world during the war to end all wars.
After a brief animated intro detailing the creation of the Amazons and their island as well as the actions of Zeus and Ares the god of war, we’re introduced to Diana as a child yearning to learn combat skills but forbidden by her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Instead her people’s greatest warrior, Antiope (Robin Wright), trains the girl in secret. She grows up to become the best of the fighters, and when an American pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane within their protected sea with German soldiers in fast pursuit she learns quickly about the dangers of mankind. She decides that her place is out in the world fighting the violent and destructive influence of Ares, and with Steve at her side she makes her way to London and to the front line of the war.
“Be careful in the world of men,” says Diana’s mother. “They do not deserve you.” That theme sits at the front of Patty Jenkins‘ triumphant and at times somber Wonder Woman, and it lends this hero an arc entirely her own and apart from other big screen superheroes. Her optimism and positivity extends beyond Captain America’s “aw shucks” and apple pie to become something of a surprising and fragile naivete. Her belief that Ares is behind the global carnage and that men are slaves to the god’s terrible whims is tested throughout the film, and it’s a slow realization that weighs heavily on Diana to great effect on the audience.
Wonder Woman’s faith and disappointment in humanity are our own.
Credit here goes equally to Jenkins, writer Allan Heinberg, and Gadot herself who balances the Amazon’s looks of curiosity and wonder with observations and realizations about the reality of the world and of mankind. One exchange of many sees all three talents working beautifully in perfect unison and with a brevity too many other superhero films could take a lesson from. Diana is learning about good guys and bad guys when Steve’s Native American friend known only as the Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) mentions that his own people were wiped out. She asks by who, and he points at Steve’s sleeping form saying simply “by his people.” There are no further exchanges, no verbalized outrage, and instead we just watch as Gadot’s expression reveals one more ideal in her understanding of man crumble into the dirt.
It builds to some dramatic payoff later on, but lest you think this is some kind of bleak affair know that Jenkins and company capture the rousing, cheer-worthy action every bit as well. The halfway mark sees the first full-fledged action sequence with Wonder Woman strolling onto the battlefield, and it’s a gloriously exciting experience. It’s immensely satisfying visually, dramatically, and in the pure pleasure of seeing this character make her presence known in a big way.
Gadot is the heart and soul of the film and this character now, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast. Wright is as stunning as you’d expect even with limited screen time, and while Pine is Captain Kirk mode — serious but not really all that serious — his comedic timing and skills remain impeccable. Danny Huston does his Danny Huston thing as the big bad, while David Thewlis, Ewan Bremner, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Lucy Davis all bring personality to various degrees of sidekicks and compatriots.
There are some pacing problems early on as it simultaneously rushes Diana’s youth and drags at times in the build up to her debut as Wonder Woman. The latter in particular sees maybe a bit too much time spent following Steve around and manufacturing minor laughs out of Diana’s trouble with revolving doors. I mean, it’s a revolving door, not a microwave. She’s not an idiot. The film’s two biggest issues though both come down to an apparent lack of confidence.
First and foremost is the repeated presence of shoddy CG effects. Either WB is contractually bound to work with second-rate effects houses or they simply didn’t want to spend the money necessary to lift it out of the early 2000s. It’s especially egregious during the early scenes on Themyscira as both landscapes and action beats sometimes look unfinished at best. Luckily some of the film’s best acting is there as well meaning Wright’s stellar supporting performance helps distract us from the visuals.
Second, the film at times feels too beholden to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Some similarities are to be expected from the period setting to the evil Germans, but others aren’t. A certain third-act scenario involving a plane feels familiar as does the team of international oddballs that Trevor pulls around him along the lines of the Howling Commandos. These beats don’t hurt the film necessarily, and the performers are solid, but they suggest a desire to play things more safe than necessary.
These are relevant but ultimately bearable problems as by the time the credits roll you’ll most likely be excited for Wonder Woman’s next standalone adventure. She’s an exciting character, and Gadot makes her an engaging and memorable one as well. It’s taken entirely too long for one of the two comics giants to deliver a true big-screen solo feature for one of their female heroes, but happily the day is finally here. And she does not disappoint.